Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

Gradients of change

I’ve recently returned from a week of walking in my favourite Scottish mountains. Climbing hills is strenuous, and the steeper the gradient, the greater the effort required.

In following a ‘stalker’s path’ up a Munro, I noticed how quickly I was gaining altitude, despite the circuitous nature of the path. I began to think about my Leadership Embodiment teacher, Wendy Palmer, who often quotes her late friend and colleague, George Leonard. Leonard describes our body’s tendency to maintain balance (homeostasis), and observes that when we introduce change, we must expect resistance as the body seeks to return to stability. He says:

‘The built-in resistance is proportionate to the scope and speed of the change.’

Walking offers a visceral experience of this. On level ground, I feel a rhythm, an ease. I can match my breathing effortlessly to my movement. I can even accommodate a gentle gradient without effort, as I walk regularly and am in good health. However, as the terrain becomes steeper, my breathing becomes more laboured. I start adjusting my stride, and my body seems heavier. Everything is more effort. I can’t ‘leap’ up the mountain, despite what is possible in my imagination.

On the hill, I really experience resistance as I ask my body to make a change. The steeper the gradient, or the more quickly I try to ascend, the greater the resistance. What activity offers you a visceral experience of the relationship between change and built-in resistance?

In my work, examples of built-in resistant are everywhere. When I introduce leaders to dialogue practices, and invite them to engage in deeper and more exploratory conversations, they often say: ‘we don’t have time for that’. Their argument for short, focused conversations seems compelling…until we explore the quality of action that follows. Colleagues who have nodded in agreement do things that seem unrelated to what was said. Others do nothing. Others again do what was suggested or requested, and meet overt opposition from their colleagues.

Back in the mountains, I experience a stark contrast between paths that take the shortest and steepest route upwards, and stalker’s paths. Let’s imagine I’m intent on making a change, the scope of which is measured by an ascent of 1000m of typical Scottish hillside.

Taking the most direct route exhausts me: the energy I expend in making each step is beyond that which I can sustain for any length of time. There is a mismatch between the capacity of my body and the gradient of the route. When I get to the top, I am depleted. Further, if I am walking with other people, my grim determination in tackling the ascent means I am alone, mentally and emotionally. I am separated from my companions by my personal struggle.

In contrast, stalker’s paths were built to support the passion of the Victorian gentry for shooting parties. These paths snake up the hillside, following contours, rising in a measured way. The ascent is still strenuous, but I arrive at the top energised. Paradoxically, in taking the longer path, I attain height more quickly. The interaction between my body and the mountain is a sustainable one. Working with the contours of a mountain involves more natural levels of effort, and so it’s also possible to remain connected to my companions.

These two types of path offer a powerful metaphor for navigating change, and raise questions about how leaders talk about change. When we ask colleagues to adopt new practices, how much attention do we pay to the gradient of the proposed changes? What kind of leadership conversations will initiate and support sustainable change, taking account of human capacity?

In my early career, my particular style meant I had plenty of practice in taking the shortest conversational line to a required destination: set out a vision, and a plan, and crack on. Focused on action, I would eventually look around, only to find myself alone. The relationship between communicating and implementing change is not linear. Others had not seen the need for change, or certainly not the change that seemed so obvious to me. Something I’d been thinking over for a while, and acclimatising to, came ‘out of the blue’ to colleagues. The gradient seemed steep. It was easier not to engage in the effort of change.

As I began to explore and understand how different types of leadership conversations enable change, I came to support the perspective of Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner- Rogers, who write:

‘People only support what they create. Life insists on its freedom to participate and can never be sold on, or bossed into, accepting someone else’s plans.’

Leadership conversations that create the conditions for sustainable change through participation explore the contours of a proposed change, and the capacity of the people involved, finding a ‘stalker’s path’ that balances the scope and speed of change with human readiness. Paradoxically, in taking time for longer, more inclusive, conversations, outcomes may unfold more quickly. Those involved will certainly be in better shape, and be more likely to arrive together!

So…when you next initiate change, what if you look for the line of a stalker’s path? What if you take the longer way?

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